CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If you want this North Carolina basketball season summed up in a sentence, here it is:
Roy Williams doesn't know.
He doesn't know when (or if) ineligible guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald will be cleared to play this season. And as he takes a seat on the bench at tipoff every game, he doesn't know which Tar Heels team is going to show up that day.
Will it be the team capable of offensive brilliance (beating Louisville) and road toughness (beating Michigan State)? Or will it be the team that can't make a free throw (losing to Belmont) or summon any road urgency (losing to UAB)?
Ol' Roy just doesn't know. When the Tar Heels host Kentucky in their annual December showdown Saturday, he'll certainly hope and expect that Good Carolina takes the floor as opposed to Dysfunctional Carolina. But he can't be sure.
And for a guy whose teams have been remarkably reliable over the years, that's tough to handle.
"The consistency is what you like – Tyler Hansbrough scored in double figures 55 consecutive games," Williams said Thursday. "We don't have that, and the biggest problem is, how long does it take you to find that out? Does it take you until the last minute of the game, and then you say, ‘God almighty, if I'd known that earlier I would have changed things.'
"That's probably the most difficult part. You don't know who's going to play for you that game."
The evidence of that uncertainty is in the box scores.
Can Carolina expect the Kennedy Meeks who played just five minutes against Richmond because of defensive liabilities? Or the Kennedy Meeks who lit up Louisville for 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists the very next day?
Can it expect the J.P. Tokoto who was a ghastly 4-of-16 at the foul line against Belmont? Or the J.P. Tokoto who hung a double-double on Michigan State?
Will the Heels get the Brice Johnson who fouled out in 18 minutes against Holy Cross? Or the Brice Johnson who had 24 points and 12 rebounds against Richmond?
And the most perplexing mystery of all so far: which James Michael McAdoo will make an appearance? The guy who was the Heels' most experienced and dependable player coming into the season? Or the guy whose shooting percentage has dipped to a career-low 40 percent, including a 3-of-13 dud at UAB?
"You don't know," Williams said. "You just go ahead and prepare every day."
One thing the coach is reasonably certain of: Hairston and McDonald won't be in uniform Saturday, as the NCAA's eligibility investigation of the two guards continues.
"I would be stunned if I were to go upstairs [to the UNC basketball office] and somebody would say those guys are eligible," Williams said Thursday.
Hairston, the team's leading returning scorer from 2012-13 and best perimeter shooter, has the more problematic situation. The junior was involved during the off-season with a murky character named Haydn "Fats" Thomas, a convicted felon from nearby Durham. On at least two occasions, Hairston was driving rental cars connected to Thomas.
McDonald has been sidelined after wearing a "designer mouth guard" in at least one game last season and appearing in advertising for Iceberg Guards, the mouth guard company.
If the NCAA were to apply one of its more common suspension metrics and sit McDonald for 30 percent of the season, that would carry through the Kentucky game – and, if you want to be technical about it, through one-third of the game next Tuesday against Texas. Then he could play.
But Hairston figures to be out longer – perhaps for the entire season. Until there is clarity with his situation, Williams will continue to deflect questions about when he may not return.
"You've got to go with who can play," he said. "That's really what it is. … At one point, I thought my team was worried about it. And then I had to say, 'Hey guys – let's play. Don't be concerned about what's going to happen or anything. We've got to play right now.'"
And play they have. With wildly inconsistent results. A 6-2 record is not unexpected for this Carolina team, but the likely losses would have been to the Cardinals (No. 1 nationally in Ken Pomeroy's ratings) and the Spartans (No. 11), not the Bruins of Belmont (No. 62) and the Blazers of UAB (No. 83).
That's enough to make you wonder: Is this a team that will play to the level of its competition all season? Getting up for the marquee opponents and overlooking the lesser ones?
"I want to say we've come with the same approach every game," said point guard Marcus Paige, who has been the most consistent Tar Heel to date. "But honestly, as a competitor, that's not the case. We've got to do a better job of realizing that every game is as important as the next one."
The next one is Kentucky, and that's quite important, at least in terms of national perception and fan interest. There is no bigger brand name in the sport right now, so expect North Carolina to approach this game with maximum focus and intensity.
But when the ball is tossed up for the opening tip, Roy Williams will be just like the rest of us: wondering which Tar Heels team will play this time.